December 5, 2021

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Boris Johnson’s over-promised land takes the shine off his northern rail plans

Boris Johnson’s over-promised land takes the shine off his northern rail plans
“Those who don’t want high-speed rail are getting it, and those who do want it aren’t getting it.” Amid Tory splits over sleaze and second jobs, that’s how one Tory MP privately summed up the north-south divide among his colleagues over HS2 earlier this week.

The new “Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands” certainly upset some Conservative MPs in the House of Commons yesterday. Keighley MP Robbie Moore said his constituents had been “completely short-changed” by the decision not to go ahead with a new Bradford station on a brand new line between Manchester and Leeds.

And if you’re a citizen of Leeds, you get the double indignity of losing not just that super-fast link to your big neighbour over the pennines, but also losing the HS2 link to the south that you’ve been promised by governments for more than a decade. Boris Johnson used to say that brand new east-west and north-south rail links were “not an either-or”: Leeds now gets neither.

But it was also noticeable just how pleased some Tory MPs were with the announcement. In fact, the real clue to the sharp change in direction – politically and geographically – was buried in the Prime Minister’s foreword to the plan.

“In my discussions on HS2 last year, I was struck by what one of my parliamentary colleagues, Lee Anderson MP, told me: that his constituents in Ashfield would have to watch the high speed trains go through at 200mph without stopping when what they really wanted was a decent bus service to the next town,” he wrote.

The scrapping of the HS2 extension from the East Midlands to Leeds will indeed spare Ashfield in Nottinghamshire from the disruption of diggers and tunnellers.

Other key “Red Wall” Tory marginals wrested from Labour’s clutches in the 2019 election – Bolsover, Rother Valley, Penistone and Stocksbridge and North East Derbyshire – will also no longer be getting ‘the building work without the benefits’ that Conservatives in the shires have long complained about.

Commuters are used to excuses about leaves and trees on the line, but “Tories on the line” is a novel justification for ditching a new route entirely. Cities like Leeds and Sheffield will lose out from the lack of high-speed connection and new capacity to the midlands and the south, but it seems that because they are Labour-dominated areas the PM is clearly unabashed.

There’s certainly some force in the argument that it’s better to spend some of those billions earmarked for HS2 on more localised links, on trains, trams and buses.

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The problem is that the Government is cutting the original spending plans on both HS2 (by £10bn) and Northern Powerhouse Rail (by around £4bn). Indeed, it appears that this policy was written as much by Chancellor Rishi Sunak as by Nottinghamshire backbenchers like Lee Anderson.

Government insiders concede that one of the reasons for the Treasury’s paring back of the plans is a worry in Whitehall that rail travel just won’t bounce back to pre-pandemic levels. But because this conflicts with the PM’s and Sunak’s rhetoric about the benefits of physically going into the office, it’s the raw reality that dare not speak its name.

The other difficulty is that Johnson is not just breaking his promises once again. He’s also trying to use semantic gymnastics to deny he’s broken any promises at all.

Having only last February committed to the HS2 Leeds extension, yesterday he said it was “total rubbish” to suggest he’d abandoned the pledge. Why? Because he’s spending a small amount on a research paper to build the Leeds link “eventually”. Having been misled once, local voters may not believe that verbal promise was worth the paper it wasn’t even written on.

Similarly, defending his promise to build a brand new link between Manchester and Leeds, he hid behind the fact that there is half a new line, which then turns into the old line (with less new capacity as a result).

One key argument deployed by both Johnson and his Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was that the changed rail routes would mean improvements were delivered much earlier. Yet claims that such benefits would materialise “a decade faster” were undermined when it emerged the Manchester-Leeds line won’t even be complete until nearly 2040.

Yet the package as a whole suggests that speedier political journeys are as important to the PM as speedier train journeys. He’s in a race against time to show people in the north and midlands real, tangible evidence that they were right to lend him their votes.

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Johnson’s key insight in both the 2016 Vote Leave campaign and the 2019 election was to spot that many people felt a break with the EU would free the UK to somehow focus on its own problems. Brexit was for millions a means to an end, and the end of being overlooked and neglected for decades.

That’s why “levelling up” is the PM’s mantra, even though it often sounds vague to the point of meaninglessness. New rail links are supposed to put flesh on the bones of that currently skeletal soundbite.

Keir Starmer says the latest proposals show Johnson has failed “the first test” he set himself for levelling up. A White Paper on the policy is due before the end of the year, but Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove has already said it will start with “a visible difference in somewhere being made more attractive”.

Yet a lick of paint on a high street of closed shops, like a rail journey that fails to match up to the destination on the station departure board, could leave “left behind” voters more embittered, not less. The PM still seems addicted to a vision of an over-promised land.

Huw Merriman, the Tory chair of the Transport Select Committee, put his finger on why new investment of nearly £100bn could be dismissed by the Opposition as a “great train robbery”.

“This is the danger in selling perpetual sunlight and leaving the others to explain the arrival of moonlight,” he said. He’s not wrong, sunshine.


The Prime Minister is in a race against time to deliver tangible ‘levelling up’ before the next election